Popular wisdom has it that, once the Nazis had come to power in Germany, they were kept there by the fear of the population.
Indeed, this is what the German population repeatedly said after the end of the war that crushed their country: we were scared, there was nothing we could do, it wasn’t our fault.
And it helped us all to believe that. What would we have done if we had been invaded, or if Oswald Mosley had come to power? We’d’ve done nothing, because we would’ve been too scared to act, fearful of the torture and concentration camps awaiting any dissent.
But it’s not true. Or, at least, it’s true only of a minority of the German population under Nazism, because for a large majority, the broadly conservative (with a small ‘c’), politically disinterested, get up, work, come home, go to bed, play a little football on the weekend, ordinary people, for them, Nazism provided very many benefits.
For a start, no matter how “low down” on the social scale you were, suddenly whole sections of the population were firmly placed below you. A humble street sweeper, a toiling factory worker, the dustman, the waiter, the people the rest of us barely notice and treat like nothing because to us they are nothing, those people got a promotion. Because now they could punch down in a way that was never possible before. They could hate Jews and Roma and ‘The Other’, because they were below them now. And everyone, so long as they weren’t a victim, benefitted.
Then, after years of a terrible economy that did nobody any good, Nazism used pump-priming methods to flood the economy with easy money. This is a handy short-term policy that has worked on other stagnant economies since, but it only works briefly before causing hyperinflation and mass unemployment. But if you underpin pump-priming with slave labour from the camps and from unpaid foreign workers and eventually by invading other countries and slaving their economy to yours, you can keep this going for over a decade. And everyone, so long as they weren’t a victim, benefitted.
The systematic murdering of the terminally ill, the mentally handicapped, the geriatric and the disabled reduced most of the costs of healthcare by removing cases that are always a drain on hospital and GP finances, meaning lower prices for everyone else and reduced waiting lists. And everyone, so long as they weren’t a victim, benefitted.
Massive investment in infrastructure is a tried and tested way out of recession that always works, although governments are reluctant to incur the debt this causes. But if you can draft the unemployed into building the infrastructure for free (or for the cost of their social security), then the price dramatically reduces. If some of the infrastructure – railways, ‘resettlement camps’ – is then used to kill the ‘subhuman’ population, allowing the state to plunder their gold teeth, watches and bank accounts, the debt isn’t run up. And if it is, pump-priming destroys it anyway. And everyone, so long as they weren’t a victim, benefitted.
The people were taught that their nation was the best in the world, none better, it’s the best, everyone says so. Everybody else is lesser. So when Austria, the Czechs and Poland fell under the jackboot, it was only natural that the lands and properties should be confiscated. The slum dwellers in Germany could be given decent housing in Poland, the Poles themselves sent off to be destroyed or worked to death. That in turn allowed the slums to be removed, meaning that the richer housing was in a better area. Society could be more neatly segregated, so for people would mix only with similar people. Social cohesion removed much of the need for politics. People didn’t feel they needed to vote, so didn’t miss it. And everyone, so long as they weren’t a victim, benefitted.
As Michael Rosen has pointed out, fascism doesn’t arrive in jackboots and uniforms. It arrives as your friend, and, at first, you welcome it. It benefits you. And, as Martin Niemöller pointed out, by the time you notice that fascism is not doing you any good at all, it’s too late.
What can we do? Nothing while we believe that it’s fear that drives people to accommodate themselves to Nazism. We need to stop believing this terrible, 70-year-old trope. And we need to act. When we see someone spouting Nazi garbage – often in hidden forms – call them out on it. Call them liars. Don’t give them a chance to plant their seeds: salt the earth.
And, if you should get the chance, always punch a Nazi.